At Kanaani Inclusive Primary school in Athi River, a learner in a wheelchair struggles to adjust his face mask. A teacher goes to his side to help him and it takes a while before they get it right.
In the same class, teacher Sandra Koyiet has to lower her mask several times to enunciate words slowly so that her students with hearing impairment can read her lips to understand what she is trying to communicate.
The learners too have at some point lower their mask to respond. Facial expression is a big part of the learning process and it is important for the teacher to know whether the learner is happy or not and this is not easy when half the face is veiled.
The mask too is an impediment for identification of physical features which are key in communication by those who can not speak or hear and rely on gestures.
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Peter Sitienei, chairman Kenya Special Schools Heads Association says Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha promised to provide clear masks and other learning aids that will make it easier for the learners to adhere to the Covid-19 containment measures.
“We are hoping that the funds meant for schools that have students with special needs will be disbursed soon. Otherwise, learning will be extremely difficult for them,” he says.
“Some of them do not understand why they have to wear masks, others cannot learn well with masks on and some of them depend on senses, including touching their faces for them to learn,” she says.
In another class, the teachers are coming up with innovative ways to remind students with weak mouth muscles who cannot control drool to keep wiping their mouths.
Song, dance, claps, diagrams, and role-playing are some of the methods they are using to drive the message home.
In lower classes where there are children with a variety of special needs, teachers are on standby to ensure they wash their hands and not touch others.
“It is hard work. It requires teachers with a calling greater than just teaching. They are now more of caregivers,” says the headteacher Esther Musila.
The teachers are trained to handle children with special needs and preexisting health conditions. She, however, admits that even as learners resumed, the number of pupils with special needs was significantly lower. Some of the parents are afraid of the risks special needs learners face.
One of the missing pupils at Kanaani Primary School is ‘baby Angel’. She joined the school a few weeks before the pandemic struck. She has no limbs and crawls to move. Coming to school would mean she will be touching surfaces to move around. Even though her class teacher Judith Kaloki knows it will be double work when she finally reports, they have called her parents to bring her to school.
“We make it part of our job to convince parents with special needs children to bring them to school. Some do not have the money to keep buying the many masks that these children need. Others are afraid that the children’s health is not good, and getting coronavirus might be fatal,” says Kaloki. Praxidis Wanjala whose Class Seven son is asthmatic says she has decided to let him stay home and get private tutoring.
“Their school has close to 70 pupils in one class. He gets very serious asthma attacks. I spoke with his teachers and we decided it is better for him to learn from home,” she says.
She admits that she worries that he will lag academically, but it is a risk she is willing to take. She says they have formed a WhatsApp group with other parents and use it to explore ways that their children can learn without being exposed.
Sitienei adds that Kenya Special Schools Heads Association is now focusing on teaching children with special needs behaviour modification.